What’s Happening With the Bus Driver Shortage
By Hadi Rahim and Jessica Hudnut
The bus driver shortage is like the pandemic; it never seems to go away. Last Wednesday, six routes were not running, leaving dozens of students without a ride home. Students have become accustomed to daily afternoon announcements of bus routes that will not be running as they rush to their phones to find a way to get home.
The shortage began with a strike in October, which, at its most extreme, saw 200 of Wake County’s 600 bus routes inoperational. The strike was a response by bus drivers to low wages, long hours, and ongoing staff shortages.
Additionally, the spread of COVID-19 (particularly the highly contagious Omicron variant) has exacerbated the issue. Drivers who become infected with the virus are unable to work, and because the workforce is already spread so thin (a consequence of the school’s growing population), schools are often unable to find replacements. The result is that these routes are simply canceled, leaving students without a ride to or from school.
As the shortage worsens, its effects are being felt by more and more students. An early hint at what was to come arrived during the first week of school after winter break, when it was announced over the intercom system that one bus route would not be running that afternoon. Since then, the problem has only worsened. On January 27, it was announced at 1:51 pm that six of the 39 afternoon bus routes had been canceled. At the time of the announcement, students had only 27 minutes to arrange alternate transportation before the end of the school day.
The lack of transportation also poses a problem in the morning, as many students now struggle to get to school on time. Zane Gibson, a Junior at Apex High, recalls a particularly frustrating experience when he was reassigned to a new bus route. He was never personally contacted about the change, instead of finding out through an email addressed to his parents. In addition to informing him of a change to his bus route, the email informed Zane that he should expect the bus to arrive at 6:40 am. He would soon find out that this information was inaccurate; the actual arrival time was close to thirty minutes later.
Many other students were also frustrated by the shortage. Vivian Mai, a Sophomore, had to walk half an hour to her house when her bus failed to show up. Other students reported similar or longer walks home. Nora Miller, a junior, has to make the twelve-minute walk from her house to the bus stop each day and wait an additional 15 minutes because of the unpredictability of route scheduling. In the afternoon, her bus is the second to last route to arrive, leaving as late as 3:00 pm.
When asked about solutions to the shortage, students most commonly suggested combining routes, increasing pay for drivers, and better communication with students.
Ms. Pettifer, a social studies teacher, has had students tell her every day that their route has been canceled. Giving her take on the shortage, she emphasizes the importance of bus drivers to the school community:
“I honestly think the best way to solve it would probably be to increase bus driver pay. I feel like that’s one of the biggest reasons we do have the shortage and obviously, that’s not the only issue but I feel like that’s the number one issue…I think people view bus drivers as ‘oh they just drive kids to and from school,’ when in reality it’s a lot more than that…I just think bus drivers, their job is a lot more complex than just taking kids to and from school and I think their pay should reflect that.”
Mr. Hill, who oversees transportation at Apex High School, remains optimistic. He anticipated that “next week is going to be closer to full strength as long as… our drivers are staying healthy.” In the meantime, he has worked alongside the transportation office and other administrative staff to ensure that students and parents are informed of changes to transportation as quickly as possible. Announcements are made over the intercom system within minutes of receiving an updated list of canceled routes. Additionally, daily updates are sent out via Twitter.
The Board of Education recently voted to raise starting salaries for bus drivers from $12.55 per hour to $13.11 per hour, but many feel that the board’s actions do not go far enough. The board has acknowledged that, without the help of the state, it will be difficult to solve the problem.
In response to the board’s decision, Mr. Hill stressed the need to attract new bus drivers:
“I know every employee gets the three bonuses throughout the year and I know the bus drivers got their bonus recently, but I think it’s just continuing like, you have to make the job more desirable if you want people to want to come out and do it. While I love our drivers, and they’re committed to Apex High School, they probably aren’t receiving fair compensation for what they do.”
In spite of the ongoing problems, the worst of the shortage might be over. On Monday afternoon students heard the announcement that all 39 bus routes would be up and running.